Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

June 24, 2017

The pork episode of Master of None

Filed under: Aziz Ansari,Religion — Razib Khan @ 7:14 pm

The Aerogram has a piece out, Bacon & (Un)Belief: Religion & American Secularism in Master of None, which reviews The Master of None episode about religion. I kind of agree that it was a little unbelievable in relation to his cousin, and how quickly he became a porkoholic.

That being said I think it is important to note a personal aspect of Aziz Ansari’s relationship to religion. Here’s a correction to an article in The New York Times profiling Aziz:

In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.

Aziz Ansari does not define himself from what I can tell as a bad or liberal Muslim. He says he’s not religious. He happens to be a guy who is an atheist, a very negatively viewed group, who is from a Muslim background a very negatively viewed group. That is one way we have a lot in common.

Also, I had a bacon experience very similar to Aziz. Though in my case it was at a friend’s house where they were Hindus from West Bengal, and my friend was having bacon. My mom came over and I had a piece of bacon in my mouth. She was a little chagrined though she said I’m not supposed to eat pork products.

In general I still don’t eat much pork and ham. But I really love bacon, and have no problem with pork sausages.

Hasan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari: your race defines you and it doesn’t

Filed under: Aziz Ansari,Comedy,Film,Hasan Mihnaj — Razib Khan @ 4:31 pm

Today I watched Homecoming King, a comedy show by Hasan Minhaj. Honestly I wasn’t going to watch it, because Minhaj’s political schtick at The Daily Show was not geared toward someone like me. That is, it’s funny to laugh along with him, but it is much easier if you agree with him politically. To me this is a major contrast with Aziz Ansari, who probably shares most of the politics of Minhaj, but who does not seem to foreground it as much.

Some of this is happenstance. Minhaj blew up on The Daily Show, which focused on politics with a liberal slant. Ansari became more well known through episodic television. That’s going to impact the sort of comedy they put out there.

But after watching Minhaj outside of The Daily Show context, and comparing his routine to Aziz Ansari’s (I’ve also watched much of Master of None), I think it is notable how differently they come off despite the likelihood that on the fundamentals they probably agree about much in American society. In short, Minhaj’s experience and recollection of racism seems much more raw to me than Ansari, who seems to have taken it more in stride.

I was encouraged to watch Homecoming King  in part because Minhaj grew up in Davis, California. I lived there for five years and one of my closest friends during my undergraduate years is a Davis native. In fact I went to her wedding in Davis during Minhaj’s senior year in high school. The centerpiece of Homecoming King happens to be about an event before prom which involved racism of a subtle but hurtful form that traumatized him in a very deep fashion. He’s talked about this incident extensively so you can Google it. But it colors all of Homecoming King.

But there are some differences between Ansari and Minhaj which I think require highlighting. Ansari is 5’6 feet tall, while Minhaj is 6’0 feet tall. Ansari is also darker-skinned, and I think I can say he is less conventionally attractive than Minhaj (readers who are attracted to men can correct me here). Finally, Minhaj grew up in very liberal Davis, California, situated between the Bay Area and Sacramento. Ansari grew up in a small town in South Carolina. I suspect that Ansari probably faced more racism than Mihnaj when he was growing up if I had to bet.

And yet of the two Aziz Ansari seems to be less deeply impacted by the banal ubiquity of white American racism. He acknowledges that it exists, sometimes in a pointed fashion. But he does not seem to let it define him.

In  Homecoming King Minhaj’s trauma from his abortive relationship with a white girlfriend scars him so much that he says he could not date white girls after that. In contrast I’m sure Ansari has experienced some level of racism against him on the dating scene. Especially in the South where when he was growing up interracial relationships were probably more taboo than in Davis. It comes up a few times in Master of None, but it’s not defining in any way. He keeps on trying to find someone he can connect with no matter their race, even if “on paper” they should be out of reach for a short dark sinned guy.

Finally, this is a minor thing, but Ansari is more explicitly disconnected from his Muslim background. He has stated he is an atheist to the media. One episode of Master of None involves him eating pork in front of his parents. Minhaj in contrast seems to own his Muslim identity much more (albeit, of a very liberal cultural variety).

Rather than being exemplars of young brown men in the United States, the subtle differences between Ansari and Minhaj show that there isn’t one way to be brown, and that we aren’t impacted in the same way by how society views us. Like Minhaj I went to high school where I was the only brown kid. Also, like Minhaj I was called Saddam Hussein. Unlike Minhaj my town was overwhelmingly conservative, while his was overwhelmingly liberal. While my town was over 90 percent white (actually more than 95 percent when I went to high school since I’m about 10 years older than Minhaj), his was about 70 percent white. What was the difference between us? A lot of it comes down to personality.

Some liberals of a minority background feel besieged by the white majority. In contrast, many of us who are more conservative accept racism is part of life, but move on, and don’t believe it is as determinative as liberals assert. Much of this comes down to personality differences, rather than race differences. Minhaj and Ansari are both successful politically liberal Indian American comedians from a Muslim background. But how they experienced American society and present themselves still differences because they are still individuals with all the differences that entails.

November 11, 2010

Aziz Ansari is not a Muslim, he is an atheist

Filed under: Aziz Ansari,Culture,Islam — Razib Khan @ 1:51 am

Aziz08A few days ago a friend was asking me about Aziz Ansari, the brown American comedian who grew up in South Carolina, and is of Tamil Muslim heritage. Since I don’t watch Parks and Recreation, I knew about him mostly through the Sepia Mutiny weblog. Some of the comments there indicated that Ansari was a practicing Muslim. That did not surprise me, South Asians are very religious. In particular, group religious identity matters a great deal to people whose origins are in Indian and Islamic civilization (and their intersection).

This is in contrast to East Asians, for whom group religious identity matters far less. It is notable that the most Sinic Southeast Asian nation, Vietnam, is closest to the East Asian model, with no single organized supernatural tradition being identified with the national consciousness. In contrast the more Indic mainland Southeast Asians, and those of maritime Southeast Asia, do fuse religion and national identity. To be Thai is to a great extent to be a Theravada Buddhist, and to be a Malay is to be a Muslim.*

The USA, unlike Canada, Singapore, or the UK, does not have breakdowns of religious affiliation by ethnic group down to the level of sub-Asian ethnicities, so I don’t know how religious or irreligious South Asians are. I assume that they’re less religious than Canadian or British South Asians, in large part because they’re a more advanced community in terms of education and economics vis-a-vis the mainstream in the USA (though to be fair it seems that the Punjabis of British Columbia and the Pakistanis of Britain are responsible for most of the social dysfunction of South Asians in those countries). But it still seems that a substantial number of American South Asians retain nominal religious identity even if their personal beliefs and practices are relatively secular. Fareed Zakaria was for example drafted as a “moderate Muslim” in the wake of 9/11 despite the fact that he used to be Slate’s wine columnist. Here’s Zakaria on the role of religion in his life:

Growing up in a country like India, riven by sectarian violence, Zakaria says, “you’re absolutely aware of the power religion has, in a positive and negative sense—in its ability to inspire people and its ability to inspire people to kill.” On the other hand, his own upbringing was open-minded and secular; he sang Christian hymns at school and celebrated Hindu as well as his own Muslim holidays. “I do know a lot about the world of Islam in an instinctive way that you can’t get through book learning,” he says thoughtfully, but admits he finds the role of token Muslim explainer in the American media slightly uncomfortable. “I occasionally find myself reluctant to be pulled into a world that’s not mine, in the sense that I’m not a religious guy.”

He was born and raised in India, so no matter how assimilated he is Zakaria retains the stamp of the nation of his birth. The Zakarias are a powerful Indian Muslim family, and in India his identity was that of a Muslim, albeit one who was comfortable with South Asian supernatural pluralism.** Zakaria also believes that he has an implicit cultural understanding of Islam because that was the milieu in which he was raised. But he admits candidly what is pretty obvious, he’s not particularly religious in any conventional understanding for a Muslim. Nevertheless he does not disavow Islam, or assert he’s an atheist or agnostic.

I’m obviously not in Fareed Zakaria’s camp. I’m not a Muslim, I’m an atheist. Just like my paternal grandmother was not a Hindu even though she was born into a Hindu family. This sort of plain and naked assertion of atheism is not something that many Americans are comfortable with, since theism is normative. But in a South Asian context the bigger issue is the rupture with historical communal memory. I have met Americans who were born into a Hindu family who were atheists and ate beef who nevertheless winced when I admitted that there were Hindus in my family tree only a few generations back who obviously converted for reasons of rational self-interest. The power of “team Hindu” and “team Islam” still remains within Diasporic South Asian communities. Of course this sort of phenomenon is cross-cultural, an atheist friend who was from a Calvinist part of the Netherlands felt confident in mocking the special superstition of Roman Catholicism in a manner which would have made the Reformers of yore smile.

For myself, close readers will be aware that my explicitly asserted denial of the existence of God and rejection of identification with Islamic civilization is something of an affront to the memory of my recent ancestors. My mother’s paternal grandfather was a wandering Muslim mystic. In his lifetime he came to be revered for his piety, and the site of his grave has become a object of pilgrimage in the local region. The superstitious local folk naturally believe that we who descend from this man carry his holiness in our blood, and my mother remembers as a small child people approaching her as if she was a special talisman. On my father’s side I come from a line of Ulama.

But if religiosity is heritable it is highly amusing to me that I probably come very close to lacking the “God gene.” My understanding that I was an atheist as a small child was less of a rejection of the existence of God than an acknowledgment of the lack of belief which had always implicitly been part of of my model of how the world worked. I simply was never “Wired for Creationism.” But by lack of belief in and of itself does not entail that I reject “team Islam.” I was always struck by the fact that Edward Said, a Christian Arab by birth, an atheist as an adult, defined himself as a product of Islamic civilization. The connection between an individual and a religious ethos runs deeper than belief alone. It even runs deeper than explicit identification. I have argued repeatedly that most American Jews and Roman Catholics adhere to a view of what religion is, and what their religion is, that is clearly in keeping with the confessional sectarian Protestantism which has shaped the history of the United States of America. For me my personal disaffection with Indian and Islamic civilization was completed by my reading of Chinese philosophers, in particular Xun Zi, as well as the pre-Socratics of the Greeks. The fact that my ancestors wasted their lives on metaphysics, mysticism, and the Madhhab is a shame. Their Eudaimonia would have been deeply alien to me, in a way that Marcus Aurelius never was.

So what about the point of the article? Here’s an addendum to an article from last spring in The New York Times:

In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.

Whoever claimed Ansari was a practicing Muslim was lying, deluded, or mistaken. Because of my general knowledge that South Asians do not usually disavow any religious identity I simply accepted this as a given and repeated the falsehood. And that is why I am putting up this post, and hoping that Google picks up this for the appropriate search queries.

* I am aware that there are small communities of Thai-speaking Christians, as well as larger communities Thai-speaking Muslims.

** I once talked to a man who was of Indian Christian background whose personal beliefs were closer to Hinduism, but in India everyone defined him as a Christian because of his birth, despite his rejection of Christian beliefs and acceptance of Hindu ones.

Image Credit: Mb3741, Wikimedia Commons

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